For many white evangelicals, the Supreme Court makeup solidifies their support for President Trump

ABC News examines religious voters in a new video series "My America."

October 16, 2020, 6:07 AM

One of the most influential and coveted voting blocs in the country has been white evangelical Christians, who have traditionally thrown their weight behind Republican candidates.

With Donald Trump, this group of Christians has found a new, if unlikely, figure to rally around -- a New York real estate magnate who hasn't made religion a centerpiece in his life and has been embroiled in numerous scandals. Trump eviscerated his Republican rivals, including a number of conservative Christians, in the 2016 primaries and forged a loyal bond with his base, including many of those voters.

Polling by a non-partisan think tank, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), has shown that support for the president among white evangelical Christians was strong throughout his first term, with an average of 71% in September. However, the president's approval among the white evangelicals steadily declined from March in the PRRI, poll reaching a low of near 55% in August.

Things changed after the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Trump's nomination of his third pick for the high court -- Amy Coney Barrett, a 48-year-old conservative Catholic who could spend decades as a justice and also create a solid 6-3 majority in what has been a heavily divided bench.

One of the reasons for the strength of white evangelical Christian support for Trump has been his commitment to conservative issues and appointing conservative judges as well as Supreme Court justices, according to experts.

But Trump's support, even with this group, among his most loyal supporters, has begun to slip slightly, according to Pew, as has his support among white Protestants who are not evangelical and white Catholics. Other religious voters, most notably Black protestants (at 90%), tend to support former Vice President Joe Biden, according to Pew, pointing to deep divisions within the Christian community.

ABC News is examining the debate going on among Christian voters as part of its "My America" video series, which highlights issues that are key to the electorate in the run-up to the 2020 election and spoke to voters and experts about the issue.

Trump has been 'consistent and loyal'

Laszlo Pasztor, a retired white military officer and evangelical Protestant who works with the Republican evangelical coalition in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, told ABC News he believes his community has been attracted to Trump's conservative policies such as anti-abortion and protecting their "right to exercise our faith."

"He's been consistent and loyal. And Christians value his loyalty," Pasztor told ABC News.

In this Sept. 1, 2017, file photo, religious leaders pray with President Donald Trump after he signed a proclamation for a national day of prayer in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington.
Evan Vucci/AP, FILE

Historians and religious studies experts note that the white evangelical bloc has gotten a great deal of attention in the political sphere, even though they only represent 15% of the entire religious population in America, according to Robert P. Jones, the CEO of PRRI.

Rev. Traci Blackmon, a Black minister who serves as the associate general, minister of justice and local church ministries for the United Church of Christ, told ABC News that not all Christians share the same support for the president or other politicians.

"There are many voices out here, evangelical and progressive…who understand [there is] a moral compelling to vote for people who see everyone, who believe in a beloved community in this country," she told ABC News.

In this June, 5, 2020, file photo, DC religious leaders raise their fists outside Saint John Church after volunteers, with permission from the city, painted 'Black Lives Matter' on 16th St. across from the White House in Washington.
Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA via Shutterstock, FILE

During the 2016 presidential election, voters were split between Trump and Hillary Clinton 45 to 48% (respectively), according to a 2018 survey by the Pew Research Center.

The voters' preferences differed widely between denomination and race, the poll showed. While 77% of white evangelicals backed Trump, only 3% of Black Protestants voted for him, according to Pew. Trump was able to get 46% of the vote from minority Protestants who don’t identify as Black.

John Fea, a historian and professor at Messiah College, told ABC News that the playbook for key Christian political figures, like the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, has been to point evangelicals to candidates who will shift the Supreme Court to uphold laws that support Christian right laws and policies.

"You vote for presidential candidates who will nominate conservative Supreme Court justices that will one day overturn Roe versus Wade and protect religious liberties," he said.

How Trump won the evangelical vote

During his 2016 campaign, Trump, who hadn't made organized religion a centerpiece of his life, spoke at Christian schools and groups touting his devotion to their causes and rallied support among prominent figures, including Jerry Falwell Jr.

Pasztor said evangelicals flocked to Trump because of his early and consistent messaging and signs he would make eventual appointees to the high court such as Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. Following Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg's death in September, Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett, a Catholic conservative, to the court, spring boarding support among evangelicals from the mid-50% range to 71%, according to PRRI.

Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett listens during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on Oct. 13, 2020.
Anna Moneymaker/AFP via Getty Images

"That is still the reason why, a significant reason why evangelicals are consistently still with him," Pasztor said, referring to the Supreme Court picks.

Pasztor acknowledged his community does take notice when Trump acts unethically or speaks with divisive and sometimes vulgar rhetoric. The 2005 "Access Hollywood" tape audio, where Trump described sexual assault on a hot mic, Trump's reluctance to condemn white hate groups and demeaning his opponents have come under fire from religious groups and ethics watchdogs for years.

"Sometimes we're troubled by some of his tweets, some of his aggressive statements…We have not ignored that," Pasztor said. "But on the other hand, we've got to look at the good that he has done."

Critics say evangelicals focus too much on white churchgoers

Some non-white Christians, however, say that the evangelical movement is too focused on its white base and not paying attention to the actual teachings of the Bible.

"My faith compels me to vote for candidates who see the poor, who see the marginalized, who see the ostracized and the outcast, who welcomed the stranger," Blackmon said.

She added that she has not heard many white evangelical leaders speak out about the more-than 200,000 COVID-19 deaths, the rise in poverty caused by the pandemic or the crackdown on immigration by the administration.

"What grieves me is not the loud rhetoric of Donald Trump, what grieves me is the silence of the white church," Blackmon said.

The Rev. Rahsaan Hall takes questions as a group of twelve ministers, from African Methodist Episcopal churches across the state, gather in front of the State House in Boston to urge the House to pass police reform legislation, July 20, 2020.
Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images, FILE

Even though Trump's policies on abortion match their views, not all evangelicals have thrown their weight behind the president. Early in October, a collection of evangelical leaders created the "Pro-life Evangelicals for Biden," group, which had over 5,000 online petitions pledging to support the Democratic nominee.

Some of the prominent supporters of the group include Jerushah Duford, the Rev. Billy Graham's granddaughter, and David Black, the president emeritus of the Christian college Eastern University.

"We believe that on balance, Joe Biden’s policies are more consistent with the biblically shaped ethic of life than those of Donald Trump. Therefore, even as we continue to urge different policies on abortion, we urge evangelicals to elect Joe Biden as president," the petition read.

Focus on nostalgia in evangelical community

Jones said there has been a shift in recent years in preferences of some evangelical voters from "values voters" to what he called "nostalgia voters."

"The one thing that Trump actually played into that was, you know, even his campaign slogan 'Make America Great Again,' is that that last word really was a harkening back right to a previous time," he said.

Jones noted that in 2008, 54% of the country identified as white and Christian. Today, that number is 44%, according to research from PRRI.

"I think this one of the biggest dividing lines in the American religious landscape is this: 'Who and what is America?'" he said.

In this Sept. 26, 2020, The Rev. Arturo Corral speaks during baptism ceremonies at the historic Our Lady Queen of Angels Church amid the COVID-19 pandemic in Los Angeles.
Mario Tama/Getty Images, FILE

Pastzor strongly rejects the idea that white evangelicals are silent about issues of justice and says Christian conservatives are among the most charitable and serving of any religious group.

"When the economy blesses the entirety of the population, to include the highest rate of employment rate of Blacks, Hispanics [and] women that is justice. That is social justice," he said.

Pasztor admitted that the country is changing but reiterated that his community wants their voices heard in the government.

"Christians do not want to be shut down and shut up," he said. "We're burdened that there should be equality under the law and that we should not be divided by race. Christians believe that there are only two races, only two sinners and believers. That's it, and we hope and pray that the policies we promote will bless us all."

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